They’re not billionaire industrialists poised to bankroll millions in the 2016 campaign, but K Street still matters to the crop of aspiring presidential candidates.
Lobbyists are tapping long-established networks of donors to help their favored White House contenders rack up early money.
Cash isn’t all they have to give. K Street denizens offer political expertise, grass-roots reach and policy credentials — skills in high demand for any emerging presidential effort. They also can help gin up support on Capitol Hill, in state and local governments and with outside organizations.
“The personal relationships that we have with members of Congress and state legislators can go a long way to helping a national candidate develop better ties,” said Republican Ari Storch, co-chairman of Artemis Strategies, who supports Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “Lobbyists have a broad intellectual knowledge base on numerous issues and can be invaluable resources for campaigns.”
K Streeters get something in return.
They hop in early in the hopes of having a potentially greater influence over a prospective candidate’s success and, therefore, over his or her campaign’s hires and policy platform. They forge lasting ties with the candidate and the team, and for a lobbyist — like any Washington operative — such ties can be priceless when it comes to influence and access.
No matter who wins the White House in 2016, odds are the lobbying outfit BGR Group will have someone on staff with that prized influence and access.
The shop has been a flurry of recent presidential activity, hosting a standing-room-only meet and greet last week with Walker and a fundraiser for Jeb Bush that netted the former GOP Florida governor’s coffers $300,000, according to firm spokesman Jeffrey Birnbaum.
Walker’s supporters at the firm include Bob Wood, Ryan Long and Bill Viney. Lanny Griffith, Dan Murphy and Dave Boyer on are on Team Bush, while Jennifer Lukawski supports Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The formerly all-Republican firm even has a Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter in Jonathan Mantz.
Wood, a former chief of staff to then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, said he’s known Walker for years and believes he’s “driven hard results with real outcomes and balanced budgets” in the states.
“In today’s age, certainly, money is always going to be first,” Wood said of K Street’s role in helping possible 2016 candidates. “But also, in these rooms, there are a lot of companies and associations as well as grass-roots groups that are communicating with their members and employees.”
So far in the 2016 pre-primary, Republicans see a much bigger potential field. Most big-dollar K Street Democratic donors say they’re ready to support Clinton, the top and most likely front-runner for the party. Lobbyists don't expect Clinton to follow President Barack Obama’s ban on registered K Streeters from donating to her campaign coffers or from serving in her administration (without a waiver).
“I think she recognizes and appreciates experience,” said Democrat Kelly Bingel, a partner with Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas, who plans to support Clinton.
She and other top K Street donors from both parties said they don’t expect their contributions to play a big role in a campaign with a price tag that is likely to hit $1 billion.
“In the big scheme of financing presidential campaigns, lobbyists are meaningless,” said Steve Elmendorf, founder of Elmendorf Ryan and a supporter of Clinton.
Clinton, he noted, “has the luxury of not needing to get started yet,” as the nominee slot seems to be hers for the taking.
On the GOP side, it’s a different story. Would-be candidates are working to squeeze off funding to their rivals and looking to secure endorsements to help fuel their efforts. The way they compete for early funding is sort of like how a tech startup seeks high-profile investors to lure other backers along.
David Tamasi, a lobbyist with Rasky Baerlein, said he’s for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. “His leadership skills are quite rare and in short supply, particularly here in Washington,” Tamasi said.
Rubio also has attracted K Street support including from big-time donor Wayne Berman, now with The Blackstone Group, and Joe Wall, a vice president of government affairs for Goldman Sachs, among others.
Bush has the support of Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, a long-time bundler of campaign cash.
“Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, it’s extremely important that serious candidates reach out to relevant folks in the D.C. community and develop dialogue and relationships with them,” Van Dongen said. “You can raise some money along the way, but the real reason you come to D.C. is to avail yourself of a phenomenally significant, organized echo chamber.”
Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.
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